In 2009, Jen Lyons, a lawyer in Boston, MA, was 29 years old when the pickup truck that she was in was hit by an intoxicated driver and crashed into a nearby building.
Jen, sitting in the backseat without a seatbelt on, was thrown through the side window and impaled on a fence between the truck and the foundation of the building. It took a team of first responders and one heroic tow truck driver to pull the vehicle off her. Her abdominal wall was shredded on impact and her stomach and intestines became exposed.
After undergoing urgent intubation at the scene of the accident, Jen was flatlining and quickly flown by helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital for emergency surgery. Her care team was led by George Velmahos, MD, PhD, division chief of Trauma, Emergency Surgery and Surgical Critical Care at Mass General.
Undergoing Emergency Surgery at Mass General
“When I first saw Jen, I thought, there is a chance that she will not make it,” said Dr. Velmahos. “She had damaged and torn abdominal muscles and the bowel was hanging out. I knew that we had to act swiftly.”
Wasting no time, he and his team prepped Jen for abdominal surgery to repair her damaged muscles and rebuild her abdominal wall using a special mesh made from biologic material.
According to Dr. Velmahos, this material was more conducive to Jen’s condition than standard meshes made from artificial material because of its ability to be fully embedded in the body and prevent infection.
“Avoiding infection is always the goal in surgical care, but especially so in Jen’s case,” said Dr. Velmahos. “Her exposed muscles came into contact with so many foreign materials, none of which was sterile.”
Following surgery, Jen woke up in her hospital room, groggy and unaware of what had happened the night of the accident.
“I woke up to hundreds of stitches in my face, a fractured leg and a scar like a giant cross on my stomach,” she said. “Also, I had received cards from strangers all over the world because my story got picked up by the news. I felt like Harry Potter; I was the girl who lived!”
A Long Road to Recovery
For Jen, recovery was a multi-phased process. She remained at Mass General for a month as an inpatient and was monitored by her care team for post-surgical infections. Under the watchful eyes of her expert team, Jen’s abdominal muscle repair remained intact and uninfected, despite the circumstances of her accident.
“We were also monitoring for a hernia, which can sometimes form when the biologic mesh stretches too much,” said Dr. Velmahos. “Because of the techniques that we used in her surgery, a hernia never formed.”
Following her discharge from Mass General, Jen moved into the next phase of her recovery: an inpatient stay for one week at Spaulding Rehabilitation.
“I was desperate to become independent again and remember haggling with the nurse about how long I would be an inpatient,” Jen said. “She said a few weeks and I agreed on one week.”
At Spaulding, Jen’s rehabilitation care team re-introduced her to calisthenics exercises, a form of strength training that focuses on large muscle groups and allows for the development of strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination. For Jen, this meant practicing exercises that she could do while sitting down and safely engaging her abdominal core.
Her occupational therapy care team’s focus was helping her learn to move with crutches, safely enter and exit the shower and carry things on her own.
“At the time, I was an active Pilates practitioner, so I remember feeling frustrated about having to start from scratch with my training,” Jen said. “I remember my Spaulding team meeting me where I was at the time to help me feel less discouraged.”
After a week, Jen’s care team confirmed her hope—she could continue her rehabilitation in the comfort of her own home.
Returning to Independence
After several months living with her parents in Duxbury, MA, Jen moved back to Boston and into her own apartment. She transitioned her outpatient care to the Spaulding location in downtown Boston and began to work with Diane Alessi Skrabut, PT.
“It was a very hard time. There were so many days when I was in unbearable emotional pain. During those times, Diane would talk to me about everything that I was going through,” she said. “It was very much therapeutic and emotionally supportive. She became a good friend as well as my physical therapist.”
In addition to her ongoing rehabilitative care, Jen continued to consult closely with Dr. Velmahos.
A Decade Later, a New Diagnosis
10 years later, Jen had long become physically active again, made strides in her career as a lawyer and continued to receive periodic care from her Mass General and Spaulding teams.
However, in 2019, Jen received a new diagnosis: fibroids the size of watermelons on her uterus.
“I thought I was pregnant,” she said. “But I had fibroids and they were on the precipice of causing organ damage. My gynecologist sat me down and recommended that I have my uterus removed.”
The surgery, she said, was a particularly emotional one. 39 years old at the time and undecided about whether she wanted children of her own, she recalls how she and her Mass General Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology care team—led by Carey York-Best, MD, gynecologic surgeon—discussed leaving a portion of her uterus intact. However, due to the fibroids’ size and how deeply embedded they were in the uterine wall, they advised her to have her uterus removed entirely.
Jen met with Dr. Velmahos, her mental health therapist and gynecologist in one room to discuss the care plan as a team. “I didn’t know how to make this decision at first, but this team discussion made all the difference,” Jen said.
To ensure the best possible recovery, Dr. Velmahos and Dr. York-Best worked together to access and remove the uterus through the abdominal wall that had been repaired 10 years prior.
“This recovery was harder than the first. It takes a while to get used to not using your abs while they heal. They’re such a large and engaged muscle in the body,” she said. “But it’s also such a strong muscle. It rebounds faster than you’d think.”
Jen recalls that it felt like “a huge basketball” had been removed from her stomach, which caused immediate relief after waking up from surgery.
Today, Jen has returned full force to her daily life and her career in Boston as the Deputy General Counsel at the Operational Services Division within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. On the side, she continues to practice Pilates regularly and also hosts a Boston food blog.
“Honestly, I am still recovering from the emotional trauma of that accident 10 years ago. I carry it with me,” she said. “But I like to tell my story in case other people out there find healing in it. These doctors are forever my heroes.”